A Soundtrack Fit for a King

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If “The King's Speech” makes good on its status as best-picture favorite at the Oscars on Sunday, it would become the first film in its category since “Platoon” to feature a major piece of classical music in its soundtrack.

In 1986, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War drama famously employed Barber’s Adagio as its theme music, a work that has become a signature sound of war dramas ever since. Yet “The King’s Speech,” in the hunt for 12 Oscars, may go even further in the way it punctuates a pivotal scene with a famous classical work – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

This very prominence has fueled a growing debate on Web sites and blogs about the intent of the creators of the break-out film about a speech therapist who helps King George VI overcome his stammer enough so that he can address his nation at the outbreak of World War II.

"In a movie about the British preparing themselves for war against Hitler, surely the symphonic score should not rely on Beethoven,” wrote Glenn Young in the Huffington Post. “On the occasion of the King of England declaring war against Hitler, under what possible pretext can the filmmakers explain the score blaring the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony?" He goes on to call the contextual use of Beethoven "cinematic treason.”

Young’s argument, echoed elsewhere online, centers on the fact that Beethoven was also a composer favored by the Nazis, performed at Hitler’s birthdays and other ceremonial events.

Other reactions have been more favorable. David Stabler, the classical music critic of the Oregonian deemed the gentle, yet powerful strains of Beethoven a perfect match. “Never mind the irony of hearing German music during a speech about going to war with Hitler,” he wrote. “The scene brims with feeling between patient and therapist, who went on to became lifelong friends.”           

The scene in question occurs some 100 minutes into the film, when the unwilling Bertie, as the King was known, has been coronated as George VI after his brother abdicated to marry an American woman, Wallis Simpson. He anxiously prepares to give the address that BBC Radio will broadcast throughout the empire, announcing Britain's entry into World War II.

Arriving in a hushed fabric-draped studio at Buckingham Palace, George steps before the dreaded microphone and manages to issue forth with a stately procession of phrases, punctuated by dramatic pauses and accompanied by the majestic strains of Beethoven's Seventh. Later, in the film’s epilogue, the King appears on the balcony before a cheering crowd as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) is heard quietly.

Both pieces were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Terry Davies. In a phone conversation from London, Davies explained that Tom Hooper, the film's director, initially used the Seventh Symphony as a “temp score” -- music you use as a guide in the editing stage. But Hooper became infatuated with the repeated notes in the Second Movement, which suggested a stammering of the King himself. As the five-and-half-minute selection proceeds, it grows in confidence, mirroring the King’s growing assurance as a public speaker.

"I did make the early parts particularly tenuous and uncertain and at one point the music kind of stops even,” Davies said of his interpretation. "It didn’t seem to do any musical damage."

Asked about the music’s Germanic undertones, Davies was skeptical. “I have a suspicion that it was used as great music and it has a wonderful exuberance and it fit. I don’t know that it goes any deeper than that.”

Hooper did not respond to several requests for comment.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra noted that Beethoven feels appropriate given the historical ties between the British and German aristocracies. “People need to remember that the family of George VI was a German family,” he said. “They spoke German until the outbreak of the First World War. Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert, who was a German prince. Her favorite composer was Felix Mendelssohn, who was German and Jewish. So the House of Windsor was and remains a family of German origin.”

Botstein discounted the notion that Beethoven stood as a symbol of Nazi values. “It is simply an outrageous retrospective to make him German in some way that evokes the First World War much less the Second World War,” he said. “The composer’s own political sympathies – as far as we know of them – wouldn’t have been aligned with the Nazi racism of the '30s.”

Other critics contend that Beethoven’s music is highly appropriate in its concern with epic struggle; Beethoven worked on the Seventh while he was in advanced stages of hearing loss and by the time it was premiered in 1812, he was almost entirely deaf.

Elaine Sisman, a musicologist at Columbia University, notes that the Napoleonic wars had not yet ceased in 1812, and the march tread may hint at the threat of war. "I don't think the Beethoven is about Germanic music," Sisman wrote in an e-mail. "His Fifth Symphony during World War II was known in England as 'V for Victory' (short-short-short-long) and he generally reads as universal.

"I'd say more likely as a political meaning is Beethoven's conscious attempt to make art central to human experience (following Schiller). He consciously created passages of musical expansion that create transcendence."

Still, Young, the Huffington Post writer, contends that other composers might have offered a better fit, especially Englishmen like Edward Elgar or Ralph Vaughan Williams. “To watch [the King's] heroic personal feat take place in the same film which fails to acknowledge its own musical subtext is to witness a failure to match form to content,” he argues.

To Botstein, only Wagner would have been truly inappropriate, given his noted anti-semitism. He added: “The scene needs something that's grave and has a dignity about it but isn’t a funeral ode and is not wildly cheery like the Pomp and Circumstance March. Beethoven’s Seventh fits all parts. It’s music for a coronation, for a grave speech to the nation, for a time of reflection. So it fits.”


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Comments [42]

Rob from NY, NY

I think perhaps you are all missing the point.
Beethoven was German. The film - and that moment - were about going to war with Germany. Period. It was an ignorant choice.
Is it a big deal? Of course not, and the 7th is a wonderfully powerful work, but you could instantly identify the musically-trained in the audience because they all had an expression that said "Beethoven? In this instance?" Saying that it was powerful assumes that only that movement would have worked there, which is a silly argument.
It's an odd choice for that moment. Powerful, yes, but geographically confused. Vaughan Williams would have made more sense.

Feb. 13 2015 02:28 PM
luisbock from Lisbon

No doubt about Beethoven wonderfull music, nor Wagner's, the later was not a nazi either. Propaganda used, and still use them for the profit they can get from their genius. And that goes both ways. But, for shure, they are german and part of german culture. That's a fact not an opinion. Fantastic british movie. I enjoy the 7th with emotion and respect, for Beethoven, not the King.

Mar. 09 2011 05:44 PM
Marie Alpert from Briarcliff Manor NY

What are we talking about? The British royal family's roots are Germanic. Mountbatten was the convenient translation of Battenberg. The music works beautifully in the context of the scene as it calmly gathers and builds.

Mar. 01 2011 04:59 PM
John Dixon from Old Greenwich, CT

The "debate" over the use of "German" music at that critical scene in The King's Speech is totally phony.
As almost all of the above comments testify, Beethoven had not the remotest connection whatsoever to Nazism. In fact, his Symphony Nr. 5 was widely known at the time as the "Victory Symphony" of the Allied cause.
It is a bit sad that there was nothing composed during the period of the film that the film-makers could have used equally as well -- at least nothing they knew of.
Perhaps WQXR could ask listeners to nominate 20th-C pieces that might have served.

Feb. 28 2011 06:41 PM
Steven Lanser from Upper Manhattan (Inwood)

The placement of Beethoven's music in "The King's Speech" was not bizarre or inappropriate, in my opinion. A music placement that was truly bizarre was the insertion of a portion of Mozart's Requiem in a bio-pic based on the life ot Queen Elizabeth the First! (I believe the film was "Elizabeth R".

Feb. 28 2011 02:06 PM
gail rubenfeld

I have not yet, but intend, to see the movie. But I did see the oscars and was moved to tears as I always am when I hear this movement. Just about one of the most moving movements, which I play time and again. It is magestic and stirring and the composer's nation or origin is of no moment (even though Wagner would not have been appropriate). This music was used to wonderful effect in the movie Irreversible which was terrible, but in the end, with the 2nd movement playing, gave the movie the only moving and memorable moment it had.

Feb. 28 2011 01:52 PM
Mim Paquin from NYC

I certainly think that in this instance, Beethoven's 7th was used to under-theme a struggle. No other reason for its use. The piece echos an internal struggle. The kind of struggle that begins and never goes away. The use of the piece in King's Speech was absolutely. I call Beethoven's 7th a "conditioner for the mind" for those of us who need to recalibrate our mind to better deal with our inner struggles. -Whatever they may.

Fact: Beethoven's 5th was used as THE calling card during WWII by Toscanini and was used to open broadcasts that were being aired over BBC as a message to those fighting against Nazis and Fascists. An aural message of solidarity.

FTR: To label ANY composers as pro- this or pro- that after their death and without any definitive or actual proof is an insult to those composers whose ideals and ideologies were always in favor of human rights. To make statements like that further fuel those that DID take away human rights while an innocent composer's life, music and overall struggle becomes meaningless. And the legacy left behind becomes tainted. - Another victim.

Lastly, a message for those insistent on being so presumptuous:
Music may not live and breath in your life, but it certainly does in mine. Don't try and ruin it for the rest of us by stretching too far to make some kind of provocative statement just to seem insightful and intelligent. It's just poor manners and an insult to those of us who can actually see the bigger picture.

Feb. 28 2011 01:21 PM
Oliver from Montclair, NJ

An absolutely soul-stirring choice! Reminded me of another wonderful scene using Beethoven's music.. the second movement from his FIfth piano concerto in an introspective scene from Peter Weir's 1989 film, "Dead Poet's Society" (also a Best Picture contender).

Feb. 28 2011 10:25 AM
Eileen from New York, NY

Huffington is doing what Huffington does best - stir things up! I think they need to give their people mor to do so that they could report or comment on really import things?

Feb. 28 2011 10:03 AM

@SOUSABOY ''I'm singing in the rain''.....''just singing in the rain''....

Good point. In movies great music has accompanied acts of extreme depravity and violence as well as noble deeds (if we remember the source of the quote above). Maybe some people are/were offended by the use of music by Elgar, Rossini and, of course, Beethoven in Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange". Who knows?

As for the huffing and puffing ("cinematic treason") from the Huffington Post, my sides are aching ... Must have been a slow week.

Feb. 27 2011 08:05 PM
Eugene B. Kordahl from New Orleans

The comments I've just read reaffirm my belief that QXR's listenership is still made of the same people I've come to respect in my lifetime of listening. Beethoven being mentioned in the same sentence with nazism is an offense to one of our greatest composers. The music fit this winning film just right.

Feb. 26 2011 12:09 PM
J. Wolin from Warren, NJ

Hey, David Gravitz, just to set the record straight, Beethoven undid his dedication of his 3rd symphony to Napoleon, not his 5th symphony, but your point is absolutely right on despite your error.

Feb. 25 2011 07:28 PM
Michael Meltzer

The more you think about it, the sillier it gets. Have we forgotten that George I was Georg of Hanau, a German?

Feb. 24 2011 07:33 PM
T.P. Williams from Long Island

The use of the Seventh was certainly noticeable, but the contrast of a German composer's music with the English king was inspired. To use something from an English composer would reduce the scene to chauvinistic melodrama. I think it was a great choice.

Feb. 24 2011 07:17 PM

I agree with "Banjo"--It simply never occurred to me that the use of Beethoven could possibly be considered inappropriate. This criticism has rendered me speechless, no pun intended. My concern with the movie is that it is nominated for an academy award for original score, and yet the most memorable music in the film, used at the most dramatic moment, is not original at all, but Beethoven, and it is not acknowledged--or at least, I didn't see it. People could leave the theater not knowing what this magnificent music is.

Feb. 24 2011 05:44 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

A further comment: Using the idealogy of the Huffington Post, we should limit Mozart because he was Austrian as was Hitler, and limit the great Russian composers because of Stalin. Where does this all end? Must everything go through a committee for approval by the elites? I think they are a bunch of idiots. Wanted to use stronger and saltier language, but QXR wants us to be civil.

Feb. 24 2011 03:45 PM
Michael Meltzer

In terms of any possible (preposterous)connection to the Nazis and the Holocaust, I have an odd connection to the Beethoven Seventh. I am Jewish, and was born on Kristallnacht, Nov.9, 1938.
My favorite recording of the Seventh has always been the one that I learned later was recorded on Nov. 9, 1951, my thirteenth birthday, by Toscanini.
The Beethoven Seventh was my Bar Mitzvah present from Arturo Toscanini. Don't tell me it's Nazi music.

Feb. 24 2011 03:42 PM

Fascinating article on the use of music in film, particularly of well-known pieces. It may interest readers to know that Beethoven's 7th symphony was used in the scoring of a movie prior to The King's Speech. In the 1935 cult horror classic, The Black Cat, directed by Edgar Ulmer, the Symphony's second movement is used to underscore a monologue by one of the film's stars, Boris Karloff (!) Quite a contrast to its use underscoring the king's speech...

Feb. 24 2011 02:37 PM

Beethoven can have such an ''effect'' on certain film characters. (Whether it be a ''king'' or a delinquent...) It can inspire a man to either great acts of nobility or great acts of ''ultra violence''. ( The choice lies with the listener I guess) ''I'm singing in the rain''.....''just singing in the rain''....)

Feb. 24 2011 02:15 PM
Stephjo from Manchester, NJ

This is why QXR is my favorite station. Miidge suggested the article, as I started to read it, I tried to remember the scene & music from the film, and now - it's playing! How fantastic. How wonderful the station recognizes that film music is an integral part of the musical world. That's why I'm a sustaining member. I grew up w/this station and want to keep it in my life. Fabulous

Feb. 24 2011 02:05 PM
Brev from New York

That the Nazis, as well as the Allies, favored Beethoven, is no reason to consider his music inappropriate for a drama where a high point is the king's speech against a brutal, aggressive dictator.

After all, Beethoven was the great composer celebrating what we would call human rights. (He is usually quoted as calling them "the rights of man".)

His cultural background was west German, which may have been more liberal than the culture of the Austrian Empire at that time, where Beethoven composed. But even the Austrian Empire of his day was more liberal than that of the Austria and Bavaria of the early 20th century, where Hitler grew up.

Using Beethoven's music was a good choice.

Feb. 24 2011 01:13 PM
Peter V. from Rosendale, NY

Just listen and watch without bias to sense that the Beethoven 7th excerpt was essential to this immensely powerful scene! The personal struggle waged by both men to overcome adversity is the key here.

How absurd to think that Hitler's propagandist misuse of Beethoven during his reign of terror should have anything to do with this sublime music or its creator's values. Beethoven despised tyrants of any stripe!

Feb. 24 2011 12:57 PM
Michael Meltzer

Ariana Huffington and her people are always hunting for something provocative. This time, an overzealous hunter has shot a cow.

Feb. 24 2011 12:07 PM
AnnaCatherine from Hackettstown NJ

I had hoped that no one would stoop to making a Beethoven/German connection. There is none. A memorable scene in an excellent movie needed that extra touch. That's what it got. Beethoven just 'goes with everything'. It was perfect.

Feb. 24 2011 12:05 PM
Michael Meltzer

Learn to read, and get a sense of humor. "Verificated" is not a word, either.

Feb. 24 2011 11:20 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Shows how stupid and a bunch of idealogues they are over at Huffington. Beethoven did not commit the atrocities, nor did Wagner. They were both Germans who received a great gift when they were born. The gift of the ability to create great music. Some of Beethoven's 7th sounds like it is going up to God, especially the first movement.

Feb. 24 2011 11:12 AM
linda from NYC

In addition to the pro use of Beethoven's 7th dicussed above I would like to add that the speech therapist is lightly conducting the speech with his hand. Speaker and conductor project the sound together which for me subtly emphasized fluency and emotion that builds throughout the speech.

Feb. 24 2011 11:06 AM
Christopher Reilly from Tampa, Florida

Beethoven belongs to the world. The beauty of his music transcends a regional classification. Glenn Young is so provincial.

Feb. 24 2011 10:20 AM
Carolyn from New York

How ridiculous. Beethoven is part of the soul of any lover of good music. His music transends mere mortal insinuations. The top ten of 2010's WQXR contest is but a tiny verification of that! This exquisite movie compounded it's greatness with the use of Beethoven's music. Kudos to, for a change, intelligent movie making.

Feb. 24 2011 10:15 AM
Leslie from Concord, NH

The forward progession of Beethoven's second movement almost feels like advancing Panzers. Though it does musically convey triumph, it also forces us to feel this growing tension which, I'm sure, was felt not only by Bertie, but by the entire nation. I think it was THE choice of music to underscore a pivotal scene.

Feb. 24 2011 09:49 AM
Henry Wallhauser

Only persons unfamiliar with classical music would attempt to associate Beethoven with Nazi Germany. His music -- and that of all great composers -- transcends mere politics, mere nationalism. These critics need to refrain from commenting on something they know nothing about.

Feb. 24 2011 09:49 AM

@Michael, they're crowned at a coronation.

Feb. 24 2011 09:19 AM
Cathy Myers from Chambersburg, PA

Beethoven's music, especially the 7th, has always given me a sense of personal triumph over hurdles in life. When I saw the movie I commented to my husband on the excellent choice of music. I enjoy the way music enhances cinema and when a classical piece fits as well or better than a new composition, what a perfect way to keep the "Old Masters" alive.

Feb. 24 2011 08:30 AM
Michael Meltzer

Not coronated? Have you verificated that?

Feb. 24 2011 07:07 AM
Joan Van Pelt from Plainfield, NJ

My husband commented on the music and potential irony. I thought it set the mood quite well. On a more picky note - kings are crowned not coronated.

Feb. 24 2011 05:11 AM
Karin from Seattle

This may not be a highly intellectual response, but poor Beethoven! The fact that he was German has nothing to do with the majesty of his music. Nor does his being German suggest that he necessarily would have been a Nazi. Furthermore, lots of people, who are firmly anti-Nazi, have loved his music. The obsession with Beethoven's nationality seems ridiculous and unfair. I think that it also misses the whole point of great art and music - which transcend questions of nationality. That said, I also doubt that Elgar or Ralph Vaughn Williams would have worked well in the context of the film.

Feb. 24 2011 12:58 AM
David Gravitz from Ardsley, NY

The second movement of Beethoven's seventh has long been one of my favorite movements from any symphony. Its majesty is unequaled in the classical repertoire. Given that Beethoven hated dictators - he undid his dedication of his fifth symphony to Napoleon upon the latter's declaring himself emperor, it is grossly inappropriate to object to his being German as a reason to criticize the use of his music. During Beethoven's lifetime there was no Germany as it existed in the 20th century. There were various independent states (Prussia, Saxony, etc.) that long after his death were united to create the Germany of the 20th century. As mentioned by others, Beethoven's fifth was the basis for "V" for victory in World War II in Great Briitain, the United States and perhaps elsewhere (...- is the Morse Code for "V"). The choice of Beethoven's seventh as the background music for the climactic speech of the movie was pure genius and could not be improved on.

Feb. 23 2011 11:05 PM

Why is there a need to constantly try to associate a ruthless dictator who died 70 years ago with a composer who died 200 years ago and whose only link is that they were both from the same general area of the world?

Feb. 23 2011 10:56 PM

When I left the theater, I thought: what a brilliant choice for a soundtrack: the music of a composer who could not hear, used as the backdrop for the first public speech given by a king who could not speak, without painful difficulty. Therein was the reason for the selection, I thought, and how perfect: see and hear, how they both overcame their afflictions, and prevailed! I think LVB and King George would have been famous friends, were they contemporaries. . .

Feb. 23 2011 08:37 PM
Harriet J. Brown

What about the classical music in "Sophie's Choice" and "Amadeus"?

Feb. 23 2011 05:44 PM
Andrew Raybould from Irvington, NY

The opening bars of Beethoven's 5th. symphony were used by the BBC during the war to introduce its broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe, as its rhythm matches the Morse Code ‘V’ (for victory /victoire), and V is the Roman numeral 5. That Beethoven’s own views were pro-democratic and anti-tyrannical added a certain delicious irony to the choice.

Feb. 23 2011 05:21 PM
Michael Meltzer

When Napoleon decided to become emperor of all Europe, Beethoven turned with disillusion on his former hero. There is no reason to believe he would have associated himself in any way with the Nazi cause, his history indicates exactly the contrary.
The complainers are guilty of false scholarship.

Feb. 23 2011 11:34 AM

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